When Benjamin and Edgar Bowen embark on a Grand Tour of Europe, they are ready to meet People of Quality. They have trunks full of powdered silver wigs and matching suits, a hunger to experience the architectural wonders of Ancient Rome and an ability to quote Voltaire (at length). They will make connections and establish themselves in high society, just as their mother has planned.
But it soon becomes apparent that their outfits are not quite the right shade of grey, their smiles are too ready, their appreciation of the arts ridiculous. Class, they learn, is not something that can be studied.
Benjamin’s true education begins when he meets Horace Lavelle. Beautiful, charismatic, seductive, Lavelle delights in skewering the pretensions and prejudices of their milieu. He consumes Benjamin’s every thought.
Love can transform a person. Can it save them?
Despite reading The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle back in February (and doesn’t that seem like an age ago given how 2020 has been since then?!), it has taken me quite some time to be in a position to put together my review. It would be fair to say that this book knocked me for six a little. Without giving anything away, the ending has to be one of the best that I’ve ever read – the final few sentences are like a punch to the gut and, if you’re anything like me, they’ll leave you mulling them over long after you’ve closed the back cover.
It was always a fairly safe bet that I’d like The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle. When I’m not raving about books on the internet, my current day job is as a full-time PhD student and my research speciality is eighteenth century literature. I find the period endlessly fascinating and generally enjoy novels set in the era, especially those that are able to capture something of the gloriously snarky chaos that seems to make up much of the rising-middle and upper class social scene at the time
At the start of The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle we’re introduced to brothers Edgar and Benjamin. Bought up by a respectable businessman and his ambitious wife, they have been educated and raised to elevate themselves and, to complete this aim, their mother intends for them to embark on a Grand Tour. They will take in the sights of Europe, demonstrate their talents, education and eloquence, and association with People of Quality.
Unfortunately for Edgar and Benjamin, the People of Quality have other ideas about who makes for a respectable travelling companion. But just as the brothers are beginning to consider heading for home, Benjamin meets the charismatic Horace Lavelle. Beautiful, maddening, and an unrepentant libertine, Lavelle is everything that Benjamin is not. He enjoys life, and doesn’t give two hoots about what People of Quality think about that. As the novel’s title suggests, Benjamin is soon intoxicated by Horace Lavelle, little realising the consequences that this association will have, or the way in which it will change his life forever.
There are so many things I really enjoyed about this novel that it’s difficult to know where to start. Firstly, Neil Blackmore has absolutely nailed his evocation of eighteenth-century life. Whilst it might not be entirely accurate in places (not a criticism – this is a novel, not a history book), it utterly vivid in all its teeming and messy glory. From the salons of the elite to the dingy backrooms of side-street brothels, I got a real sense of the world that Benjamin, Edgar, and Horace inhabited. As with Imogen Hermes-Gower’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (a fantastic novel, and one you should definitely read if you enjoy this!), this is not the polite and refined eighteenth-century of Jane Austen but the raucous society seen in the poems of Swift, Defoe, and Fielding.
What really drives the book though is the characters. Horace Lavelle, in particular, leaps off the page. He reminded me, in many ways, of Lord Henry Wotton from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (the whole novel has something Wildian about it – if you’re a fan of Dorian Gray, I think you’ll enjoy Lavelle), with his pithy epithets and amorality. Lavelle has, however, a strange vulnerability that makes him much more likeable than Lord Henry. This is never more apparent than when he is with Benjamin.
It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that a relationship develops between Benjamin and Lavelle and, in this exploration of ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, the novel is at it’s most tender. For different reasons both Lavelle and Benjamin struggle with their sexuality and its implications. For Benjamin, his love for Lavelle threatens everything he has been bought up to believe in. He risks, at best, ostracisation from society and, at worse, prosecution and death. For Lavelle, Benjamin represents a tie that binds, and a security he’s been running from his whole life. From the outset, it is clear that this is a love story with very little chance of ending well.
The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle won’t be for everyone. I imagine some people will want more of a plot whereas this is very much a novel driven by the interconnections of the characters, similar to Andrew Miller’s Pure and Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. Although the novel is set during a Grand Tour, this isn’t a book about where the characters go but about what they do, and how they feel about the choices they are making. And it’s safe to say that a lot of how you feel about the book may rest on how you feel about Horace Lavelle. I found him maddening and mesmerising in equal measure – a fascinating character to spend time with in a novel but, I suspect, an infuriating one to meet in real life!
To say any more about The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle would be to spoil the novel. This is a book to dive into, head first, and immerse yourself in over the course of a weekend. Driven by its characters, and by it’s careful unpicking of the themes of class and social status, love in its many and varied forms, and the discovery of an identity, this is a glorious romp of a book. And, as I said at the beginning, that ending – and the final paragraph in particular – had me reeling.
If you’ve enjoyed Hermes-Gower’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Miller’s Pure or Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, or any of Wilde’s work, I think you’ll adore The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle to the same extend that I did. And for anyone made curious by the mysterious Mr Lavelle by this review, I would urge you to pick this novel up and go make his acquaintance!
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to Laura Brooke from Penguin for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.